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July 13
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

MYST VR AND HIS DARK MATERIALS CONTINUE TO EXPAND THE POPULAR VR/AR LIBRARY

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of HBO & Cyan Worlds.

When Myst debuted on CD-ROM in 1993, it stood apart from other video games at the time. The classic adventure title has no physical violence, there is no time limit, and the player never dies. There is no “game over.” Initially, it isn’t even clear what the game is. The user arrives at a starkly beautiful island world called Myst and must discover the nature of the game through exploration. The player solves puzzles with logic and patience. Myst had impressive graphics and, although viewed on a computer screen, was highly immersive. Created by Cyan and released by Broderbund, Myst struck a chord: it became an immediate best-seller for Apple and then for the PC. For a few years in the mid-to-late ’90s, it was the top-selling PC video game. It was so popular – and family-friendly – that it helped boost the sales of CD-ROM drives and even personal computers. Myst and its sequels have sold more than 12 million units to date, according to Cyan (now Cyan Worlds). The franchise has also produced three novels and a comic series.

“We’ve always felt that Myst in VR was a given, it was just a matter of timing. VR has been around for a while, but it’s taken a long time for it to reach a stage where it strikes the right balance of quality and accessibility. We felt like the time had arrived.”

—Rand Miller, CEO, Cyan Worlds

Now, in a move that seems long overdue, Cyan Worlds has released a $29.99 VR version of Myst for Oculus Quest headsets.

“The first time I experienced VR was back in the ‘90s. And I’ve known since then that Myst was destined to be experienced that way,” says Rand Miller, CEO of Mead, Washington-based Cyan Worlds. He and his brother Robyn designed and created the original game. “We’ve always felt that Myst in VR was a given, it was just a matter of timing. VR has been around for a while, but it’s taken a long time for it to reach a stage where it strikes the right balance of quality and accessibility. We felt like the time had arrived.”

The Rand brothers created the original Myst with Apple’s HyperCard software application and development kit. The availability of Unreal Engine in recent years facilitated the creation of the VR version. Miller comments, “The Unreal Engine was a critical component in being able to pull off Mystin VR. At Cyan we’ve had quite a history with real-time 3D engines – all the way from rolling our own to using various commercial engines. The Unreal Engine isn’t magic, but when we embrace an engine we want to be able to trust that the developers of that engine are committed to the intricacies of their platform – freeing us to focus on the end result. The Unreal Engine definitely feels like it has that [commitment] from Epic.”

The VR edition of Myst has new art, audio and interactions. Myst VR also has VR moves like teleporting, snap turns and using a hand to grab or pull or turn. And there is also a new randomized puzzle option. Cyan describes the new version as “fully redesigned and created from the ground up using Unreal Engine.” Miller explains that the original Myst “was our design doc for this new version of Myst, but there were certain changes that were necessary or desirable. From an artistic standpoint of course we wanted it to be Myst, but there were improvements that could be made. Beyond that there were numerous interface elements that needed to be changed to be used comfortably and intuitively in VR.”

Reflecting on the importance of the original Myst nearly thirty years later, Miller observes, “I think it was the idea that games could allow you to explore at your own pace, while uncovering a story in a visually appealing virtual world. In some ways maybe it had just enough elements of a real world to feel real.”

As for a Myst movie or TV series, Miller says, “We’re trying very hard to make that happen. Fingers crossed.” Cyan is currently working on its next VR adventure game, Firmament.

In HBO’s augmented reality app His Dark Materials: My Daemon for iOS and Apple Watch, users interact with their own “daemon” animal – be it a leopard, monkey, a fox or something else – that suggests various wellness activities. (Images courtesy of HBO)

HBO’s His Dark Materials in AR

Imagine looking at your iPhone and viewing a leopard at your side – one that helps you stay healthy and emotionally well, a sort of AR support animal. In HBO’s augmented reality app His Dark Materials: My Daemon for iOS and Apple Watch, users interact with their own “daemon” animal – be it a leopard, monkey, a fox or something else – that suggests various wellness activities. My Daemon brings narrative elements from the His Dark Materials series into daily life, with users’ daemons encouraging them to participate in activities that contribute to overall health in mind, body and spirit. If users perform tasks like walking or breathwork, their daemon becomes happier and healthier.

Work on the app started in late 2019, when HBO engaged Framestore to work on an immersive experience in anticipation of Season 2 of His Dark Materials, based on Philip Pullman’s award-winning fantasy trilogy. “First and foremost, we knew we had to create a fan experience around daemons, because fans love the daemon characters. So our goal was always to bring the experience of having a daemon into the fans’ real lives. When COVID hit, we also had to consider people being stuck at home. Within this climate, we saw a really unique opportunity to provide a great fan experience while providing a positive benefit,” says Christine Cattano, Global Head of VR and Executive Producer at Framestore.   In His Dark Materials, daemons are “soul manifestations” in the form of animals – constant companions to characters in the world of the story’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua. Cattano notes, “We also made the connection that those characters who were most connected with their daemon were the most content, so it really brought home this idea of ‘storifying’ wellness and having our daemon companions encourage us to be our best selves.”

Almost 30 years after its groundbreaking debut on CD-ROM, the VR version of the classic adventure Myst for Oculus Quest headsets revisits the beautiful island world where there is no violence, no time limit, the player never dies, and there’s no ‘game over.’ The player must discover the nature of the game through exploration and solve puzzles with logic and patience. (Images courtesy of Cyan Worlds)

“The Unreal Engine was a critical component in being able to pull off Myst in VR. … [W]hen we embrace an engine we want to be able to trust that the developers of that engine are committed to the intricacies of their platform – freeing us to focus on the end result. The Unreal Engine definitely feels like it has that [commitment] from Epic.”

—Rand Miller, CEO, Cyan Worlds

Framestore has had a long-standing partnership with HBO. “In addition to working on tentpole projects in the immersive/XR realm for properties like Game of Thrones,” notes Cattano, “we are also the VFX partner for His Dark Materials. We not only had access to the assets, but we also had great creative insight from the show’s Visual Effects Supervisor, Russell Dodgson, on how to create an experience that resonated with fans of the IP.”

HBO and Framestore had initially conceived a location-based experience for Comic Con 2020, says Cattano. “But in the wake of COVID-19, we made a strategic pivot to design an experience that fit within the current landscape, providing accessibility for a wider fanbase.”

The iOS app was built using Unreal Engine and utilizes ARKit, Apple’s augmented reality platform. “As Unreal Engine doesn’t natively support the WatchOS, we built separate mobile (UE4) and watch (Xcode) apps, which we then merged into one,” explains Cattano. “We used Unreal for asset work from pre-production through to the final product. As we had a lot of the show assets in-house already, we were able to use those as reference while designing for our desired platform and range of target mobile devices.

“The heroes of this app are definitely the daemons,” Cattano continues, “and we had a high-quality bar set from the show. Knowing that many of those characters were going to have fur, we knew we’d get the best fidelity using Unreal Engine. I know a parent always thinks their own babies are the most beautiful, but I truly believe our team has created the best-looking animated AR creatures out there!”

The My Daemon app is free. One goal in creating a daemon companion that interacts with your activities throughout the day “was to build a continuous engagement loop, keeping fans plugged into the His Dark Materials world beyond the promotional window,” says Cattano. “We’ve seen many of our [promotion-related] projects go on to have runs outside of the promotional window. For example, our first VR project, Ascend the Wall [for HBO], toured around the world regularly for two years.” That project put the viewer inside the world of Game of Thrones.

Framestore has created over 50+ XR (VR/AR/MR) projects to date, according to Cattano, who adds, “We currently have a significant amount of AR work in the pipeline.”

“[One goal in creating a daemon companion in His Dark Materials: My Daemon] was to build a continuous engagement loop, keeping fans plugged into the His Dark Materials world beyond the promotional window. We’ve seen many of our [promotion-related] projects go on to have runs outside of the promotional window. For example, our first VR project, Ascend the Wall [for HBO], toured around the world regularly for two years.”

—Christine Cattano, Global Head of VR and Executive Producer,  Framestore

The pandemic provided the project’s biggest logistical challenge, starting in March 2020. “The teams of artists, developers, producers and systems support at Framestore made the Herculean effort of moving our global company successfully to work from home safely and effectively. We had to quickly adapt our working processes to be able to maintain the level of collaboration and fluidity that we would achieve in-person while we were working remotely,” says Cattano.

Looking at the future of VR and AR, Cattano feels that viewers will increasingly be able to immerse in their favorite films or series. “The opportunity we have with XR technologies at our fingertips currently is to extend the stories of these IPs in more personalized, interactive ways. We’ve seen some of those coincide directly with the narratives of the film or TV show, and, just like video games, we’ve also seen them follow tangential storylines that put the user in the driver’s seat as the hero character. As these technologies evolve and become more prevalent, the opportunities are only going to expand. I’m excited to see these mediums take off on their own and become a bigger part of the transmedia matrix we’re all living in.”


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